Jul 7, 2015
A Guide to the Psychics, Shamans, and Tarot Readers of Brooklyn
From crystal gazers with neon-signed storefronts to regular-seeming geriatric nurses with side jobs as clairvoyant mediums, Brooklyn is home to untold scores of professional psychics, readers of auras and tea leaves, casters of cards and runes. And although one Brooklyn man claiming psychic powers and contact with aliens was recently fined for bilking elderly Iowans out of thousands of dollars, not everyone offering intuitive reading services is an evil con artist. Far from it: The local communities of believers in the paranormal are vast and colorful, part of what keeps Brooklyn interesting and its chi in check.
In the spirit of keeping an open mind and offering a guide to spirit guides, I sought out readings from seven local psychics. They offer a taste of Brooklyn’s paranormal smorgasbord, using a variety of methods, from runic divination to the Tantric Dakini Oracle, to gain insight into their clients’ lives. Some practice at Bushwick New Age hubs like Catland Books and the Tarot Society; others read from the quiet of their Bay Ridge apartments. Here, psychics offer predictions for Brooklyn’s future (spoiler: “more gentrification”); explain how they defend their work to skeptics; and offer tips for developing your own intuitive powers (“use yoni eggs”). One accurately predicts, via Norse runes, who will win the NBA finals. None foretell any sort of doom.
QUEEN MAMA DONNA HENES
Specialties: Tarot, Sky Reading, shamanic rituals, blessings
“QUEEN” is spelled out in big metal letters on the pink wall of Mama Donna Henes’ Tea Garden and Healing Haven, a skylighted sanctuary on the top floor of a former public elementary school. Henes, whom The New Yorker once dubbed the “Unofficial Commissioner of Public Spirit of New York City,” lives and works here with her little black-and-white dog, Poppy. Mama Donna once learned from an animal psychic that she has spent many lifetimes with Poppy, whom she accurately calls “perfect” and “a truly ascendant being.”
Fans of this kindly earth mother include former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, who once honored Henes’ “skill to communicate cosmic consciousness” with her public rituals, such as teaching how to stand an egg on its end during the Spring Equinox. Notable clients include the stars of VH1 reality show Mob Wives, for whom she performed a televised house blessing, exorcising “a little bit of the devil.” Henes blesses pets, too–at a recent ceremony at Grand Army Plaza, she blessed 100 dogs and a parrot, as well as a stuffed toy cat, meant as a “symbolic surrogate for all the stray cats of Brooklyn.” As leader of the annual West Village Halloween Parade, Mama Donna marches with her Blessing Band, sprinkling attendees with a fairy dust concoction of glitter, sugar, and cornmeal (a “traditional blessing substance”) in honor of the holiday’s Pagan roots.
How she reads: When I visit Mama Donna, she first dips her index finger in a little vial of glittery water and amethyst crystals, one of many blessing oils she’s concocted, and presses it to my third eye. “I bless you,” she says, “on your path, in your life.” And I feel #blessed. Next, she reads from the Voyager Tarot deck, her preferred mode of divination. The cards say, among other things, that I need to better honor my inner hermit.
“For me, the benefit of the Tarot is prescription,” says Henes, “not prediction. It points out patterns, it points out where the energy is, how you might be blocking yourself, what talents you can explore. But I think predictions are so stupid. Do you really want to know the day you’re going to die?”
Philosophy: “Shamanism is the oldest brand of spirituality, predating any kind of organized religion. It’s really the belief that everything has a spirit. Even what we would consider the inanimate: rocks, clouds. It’s that connection to spirit and the understanding that everything is interconnected, that we’re all part of the same weave of life. And, of course, science backs that up these days–that’s every bit of quantum physics.”
Cost: $180 for a 90-minute Tarot reading.
Specialties: Readings using the Elder Futhark (Runic Divination) and Intuitive Tarot
In 2012, along with two friends, Phil English co-founded Catland, a bookstore that caters to the surrounding communities of occultists, yogis, Pagans, gnostics, mystics, witches, Chaotes, and Thelemites (followers of Aleister Crowley). The red-painted shop is stocked with “grimoires” (magic texts) and titles like Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, as well as wands, genitalia candles, an apothecary, and an altar devoted to Anubis and slain Twin Peaks heroine Laura Palmer.
Psychic path: Born and raised in Titusville, Florida, Phil started studying runic divination at age nine, under the tutelage of his father, a folk musician and practicing neo-Pagan. “It was really weird,” Phil says of his childhood. When Phil was 19, two Norse gods came to him in a vision, a kind of fever dream–first Heimdall, then the chief god Odin–and told him to “go learn magic.” After this vision, Phil consulted a psychiatrist, who reassured him he wasn’t psychotic, so he went ahead and obeyed the gods’ commands.
How he reads: While shooting at Catland, photographer Jane Bruce, our resident sports fan, asks Phil to predict via runes who will win the NBA finals. “That seems sort of frivolous,” he says, but agrees to do it anyway, casting from a velvet satchel 24 runes, which look like Scrabble pieces, onto a little table. “Who’s playing?” he asks. (Cavaliers versus Warriors.) After flipping over a few runes, he declares that “the Warriors are better slated to win, but one of their players is gonna have an injury, and it’s gonna be an important player, probably having to sit it out in an early phase.” As he says this, Jane gets a notification on her iPhone, saying that Klay Thompson is out with a concussion. While we wonder whether he’s somehow checking up sports news under the reading table, Phil seems satisfied, but not too surprised, by this freaky coincidence. (The Warriors ultimately won the finals).
“I usually go into a trance when I read,” Phil says. He prefers to call himself an “oracle” rather than a psychic, though he believes “everyone has psychic abilities.” “When I’m in a reading, I’m speaking with intelligences outside of myself, and transmitting information they give me,” he explains. “The runes are a kind of language,” one that’s native to him. “They’ve been a source of power and truth and wisdom for my whole life.” In a second, non-sports-related reading, Phil tells me that I need to “get angrier.” Very Thor.
The future of Brooklyn: Phil opted not to read on the future of Brooklyn, because “everyone knows it’s just more gentrification.”
Cost: $60- half hour, $80- hour.
Specialties: Clairvoyant medium, Tarot reading, spiritual counseling
There are no crystal balls or Ouija boards in the Bay Ridge apartment where Penelope, a geriatric caretaker by day, lives with her dachshund, Basil. “People have this image of psychics wearing turbans and levitating, but I’m understated,” this twinkly-eyed Brooklyn native says. You’d never guess by looking that Penelope also works as a clairvoyant medium–sometimes helping crack cases for the NYPD–and that’s how she likes it. “I’m shy,” she says, though she’s also secretly a fierce drummer, able to play any percussion instrument. “I’ve never advertised. I’ve never been online. I’ve gotten all my clients through word of mouth.”
Psychic path: As a teenager growing up in Flatbush, Penelope started “hearing information” in the form of images, symbols, and voices in her mind. A bit like Buffy when she first discovers her Vampire Slayer status, Penelope initially wanted nothing to do with the psychic lifestyle. “I really wasn’t interested. It made me feel different and crazy. I thought, ‘Why is this happening to me? I want to stop doing this.’ And I tried, but the more I tried to suppress it, the more the information came,” she says. “I’m just wired differently–I also never sleep. I can run on three hours of sleep a night.” Luckily for Penelope, strong intuition ran in her family–“We’d call my mother ‘the witch,’ because she always just knew things”—and so her parents and siblings were happy to be her first subjects when she started doing psychic readings at age 18. Now, she has clients all over the world.
In her 35 years of practice, the NYPD has consulted Penelope as a medium in several tough cases, she says, including one in which she located the body of a missing boy under a bridge. (She says she’s not allowed to disclose details.) She no longer works with detectives, though, because she tends to find such cases too upsetting.
How she reads: “When I sit in front of someone, the best way I can describe it is I go blank, and I’m open to hearing whatever I’m supposed to hear. Stories, information, images, pictures, and symbols come up in my mind, which make no sense to me, but they have to make sense for the person sitting in front of me.”
Penelope gives an example of how this happens: “I had a phone call from a client, and I heard her say ‘Hi, honey’ to her husband. And I said, ‘Get off the phone and get him to the hospital right now.’ It was so loud in my head: Somebody just screamed ‘get him to the hospital.’ She was an old client of mine, so she said okay, and drove him to the hospital. As she got to the emergency room, he had a massive heart attack. And they saved him.” Penelope can’t explain how such information comes to her: “I don’t know where that came from. It just happens. And now I have a letter from the family that says ‘You saved my father’s life.’”
What she says to skeptics: “I love skeptics. I love when I can turn that around. Most of that skeptic stuff is about fear. I always tell people, if you don’t believe in what I have to say right now, just be honest. I don’t want anyone to think I’m doing any hocus-pocus, fancy-schmancy, reading-body-language stuff. I’m not that clever.”
Tip for developing your intuition: Penelope, who teaches a class on getting in touch with your intuition, gives me a homework assignment: Light a white candle, sit in front of it, take three deep breaths, and look into the flame. Ask it what it wants you to know. (I am still waiting for it to tell me.)
Cost: Sliding scale discussed at appointment–email Pennym1956@gmail.com for information.
Specialties: Tarot reading, Reiki, sex magick
Psychic path: Born in Zambia, Desiree is named after her grandmother, whose middle name, Bwanga, means “child born of magic,” or “witch.” “I’ve just always been kind of witchy,” Mwalimu, who teaches art at a Brownsville elementary school, says. After moving to Takoma Park, Maryland and entering Catholic school, she was “always very drawn to the Virgin Mary.” Later, as a visual art major, she started exploring goddess religions, matriarchal societies, sex magick, and the Tarot. “My father wasn’t into it–he was like, ‘This is an abomination! This is evil! This is devil’s work! Tell God you’re not a witch!’” she says. “I’d try to remind him that before Britain’s colonization of Zambia, the country’s spiritual traditions celebrated the connection between human beings, ancestors, and the spirit world,” and none of it was considered devil worship.
How she reads: Desiree started out using the Ancestral Path Tarot instead of the oft-recommended Rider-Waite deck. “I needed to see images that I could connect to. I needed the images to be black and brown,” she says. Now, she reads with the Tantric Secret Dakini Oracle deck, designed by artist Penny Slinger, featuring trippy photomontages and cards with titles like “Totally Bananas,” “Mother’s Milk,” and “Dangerous Pussy.” “So you’re a witch, too,” she says upon reading my cards, forcing me to confess to a middle school Wiccan phase.
What she says to skeptics: “I don’t talk to skeptics. At the end of the day, your willingness to receive what I’m saying determines the degree to which you’re willing to investigate other realms. And if you’re on the planet and you’re living right now, you’re going through some major heavy emotional stuff, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Everybody is not okay. Stop acting like you’re okay.”
Tips for developing intuition: “Build a bridge to your unconscious. Look at art. Apprehend it instead of trying to figure it out. Listen to Alice Coltrane.” Desiree is also a proponent of yoni eggs, egg-shaped crystals designed for women’s “sexual energy healing,” sort of like sparkly tampons for absorbing bad vibes.
The future of Brooklyn: Mwalimu consulted the Tarot to see what’s in store for the borough. “The major energetic thread that covers Brooklyn: Totally Bananas,” she says. Other cards she pulled included “Magic Carpet, Isis The High Priestess, Tree Spirit Yakishi, Mean & Heavy, Cutting Through, Mother’s Milk, Three Fold Riddle, Fire of Sacrifice, Waves of Bliss, Guardian, and Joker.” Based on these, she concluded, “Brooklyn is undergoing a major psychic surgery, so to speak. Things are being turned upside down through gentrification, which is creating an atmosphere of panic and an imbalance of energy in the people that live here or want to live here. There’s a general anxiety being masked under the guise of pleasure… The ancestors that built their lives here for generation upon generations are calling to those who will listen to protect and maintain a Brooklyn that serves all people of all classes and ethnic backgrounds.”
Prices: $160/ hour for private readings. At Crown Heights yoga studio Urban Asanas, Mwalimu also gives donation-based readings at events like Friday evening’s Breath and Beats.
Specialties: traditional cartomantic prediction, spirit led gnosis, Tarot
“I just bought a $300 mandrake root on eBay,” Damon Stang, who works as a reader at Catland, tells me, explaining it’s “the ultimate magical talisman.” While consuming mandrake could put you in a coma, there’s an apothecary run by one Sarah Lawless that specializes in diluted topical mandrake ointments. When applied to various body parts, these ointments can “take you to some extremely ecstatic places,” Stang says. (Don’t try this at home!)
Psychic path: Damon began practicing witchcraft at age 12 in his conservative Christian town in South Africa, where “if you call yourself a witch, you’re pretty much admitting to being a sociopathic criminal” and risk having your house burned down. At 34, he’s still at it. After being initiated into three Neo-Pagan Wiccan orders, Damon now identifies as a “Traditional Witch.” “Traditional witches are odd folk,” he says. “Most of the public, outspoken ones are real douchebags. They’re such snots. They’re like, ‘I am so perfect, so well-researched, so authentic. Oh, Neo-Paganism, oh, that’s cute!'” he says. Now, as a Tarot reader at Catland, he tries to avoid such one-upmanship.
Cost: $60 per hour.
Specialties: Astrology, tea leaf reading, Tarot reading
Kim Allen speaks with lots of exclamation points, which serves her well while hosting psychic reading radio hosts on Hot 97 and talking over TV host Maury Povich. At the Bed-Stuy home where she works, Allen introduces me to her giant crystal ball, flecked with obsidian, “really good for protection.” She bought it at a flea market in the West Village because it reminded her of the one from The Wizard of Oz.
How she reads: While analyzing my astrological chart via an iPad app and tossing Tarot cards onto the table, she rattles off predictions (“You’ll meet a new guy while dating this other guy!”); unnerving diagnoses (“There might a cyst on your right ovary. Ask your gyno.”); and skincare tips (she does “astrological beauty readings” for Shiseido at Bergdorf Goodman). Then, she detects in some tea leaves the shape of an eagle and a few letters, saying “beware of a female with an S in her name–Sabrina? Sarah?” Her rapid-fire prediction style feels a little like she’s throwing handfuls of darts at a dartboard and hoping one hits a bullseye.
Psychic path: Growing up in a devout Catholic family in Detroit, “I was always a little strange,” Allen says. “I’d say things to my parents, like, ‘Oh, I don’t like this friend of yours, he’s thinking about stealing something,’ and they would give me real weird looks. But lo and behold, this person would end up causing a falling out.” Decades later, Allen abandoned a career in newspaper reporting to “report on the planets” full time.
What she says to skeptics: “I love skeptics! They’re only doubtful until something I’ve predicted comes true, and then they become believers. It’s been my experience that men can be the biggest skeptics, but once you tell them something that no one else could possibly know, they become your client for life! I have a lot of male clients.”
The future of Brooklyn: Based on some Tarot cards she pulls, Allen predicts that “Borough President Eric Adams is going to have to put a lot more energy into recapturing and stabilizing commerce here in Brooklyn, because for some reason, it’s at a standstill right now. In the next two years, there’s going to be more momentum put into attracting more businesses in Brooklyn.” Perhaps that rumored weed dispensary will open on Fulton Mall after all?
Prices: Range from $20 for a “Quick Question” reading to $100 for a 30-minute “Premium Psychic Reading.”
Wearing a floral garland atop her Wednesday Adams hair, Darcey Leonard describes herself as the “Screwball Diva” of bacchanalian event production team House of Screwball, which runs the Tarot Society. This loungey “divination salon” is designed to provide a magical alternative to Brooklyn’s bar scene. Witchy evening gatherings feature readers of all stripes, dubbed “psychic sommeliers,” offering “a safe social space for people who don’t necessarily feel like partying,” Darcey says. She describes how studying acting as an undergrad helped her develop her skills as an “intuitive empath,” a disposition that would later spark an interest in comparative occultism and palm-reading.
How she reads: “The lines in our hands that we’re born with change over time in relation to the choices we make. So I observe the lines in the hand and their relationships to each other to develop a picture of the client’s strengths and weaknesses.”
What she says to skeptics: “It’s not for you. This stuff doesn’t have to be for everybody. I hope skeptics find what works for them. I don’t care how you get to your self-knowledge. Just get there, please.”
Tip for testing your intuition: “I play games with myself. Sometimes I’ll sit on the subway and close my eyes and feel where the energetic hotspots are. Sometimes it’ll be like ‘Wow, there’s a real bright light over there,’ and then I’ll open my eyes and see: There’s a baby.”
Philosophy: “We’re all beautiful piñatas… I believe in reincarnation, so it’s like, come on, let’s do the work! How many times do you wanna come back?”
Reading Brooklyn’s palm: Darcey read a subway map of Brooklyn, imagining that the city were a hand and the various train lines were lines in its palm. “The blue line, the ACE, is like New York’s lifeline,” she says. “It’s long. The JMZ looks like a series of very long, intelligent head lines, which indicates Brooklyn is home to a lot of big-picture thinking. The NQR is more like a heart line. And Coney Island is in the spot on the hand that would be called the ‘lunar spot,’ the seat of intuition and psychic abilities. Coney Island injects Brooklyn and the rest of New York City with its psychic and imaginative side. That’s why we go to the Mermaid Parade.”
Cost: All Tarot Society readings are donation-based (suggested donation $5 to $30).
Some of these readings seemed questionable; others seemed eerily accurate. After a while, this psychic binge started to mess with my head–one said I possessed “dark feminine magic,” another deemed me a witch–so I sought the opinion of a non-telepathic shrink. “Certainly much of it is about the Barnum effect,” Dr. Miranda Morris, a Brooklyn-raised, Maryland-based psychologist (and also, my second cousin) told me when I asked for her thoughts on psychics. The Barnum Effect, in short, is a tendency people have to rate statements about their personalities as highly accurate, when those same statements could apply to basically anyone. “That said, there is so much we don’t know,” Dr. Morris says. “It’s much cooler to act as though you do know, to maintain a certain level of cynicism. That way, people who kinda do believe will feel stupid and small and they will shut up. But if you back up a bit from the question of psychic abilities, you can see that much of what we now endorse as true–i.e., the universe is expanding and is infinite, the effects of traumatic experience can be passed on genetically, face transplants–is stuff we’d once have scoffed at.” Dr. Morris believes we do well to remain open to possibility in matters such as these. “A person can have awareness of events we don’t perceive as having happened yet? I’m pretty sure physicists do not conceptualize time as linear,” she says. “In some sense, all things happen simultaneously.”
Follow Carey Dunne on Twitter @CareyDunne
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